Book Summary: “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny” by Robert Wright

Book Review

Title: Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
Author: Robert Wright
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Understanding the driving force of progress, innovation and increasing complexity.

If you would like to learn more about how evolution has shaped human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Human progress can be best understood by comparing it to biological evolution by natural selection.
  • Humans prosper by imitation and non-zero cooperation (I win, You win).
  • When groups compete, non-zero cooperation within the group beats zero-sum competition within the group (I Win, You Lose). Without competition between groups, the zero-sum mentality tends to triumph.
  • This non-zero cooperation within the group leads to increasing complexity and progress.

Important Quotes from Book

“Sometimes political scientists or economists break human interaction down into zero-sum and non-zero-sum components. Occasionally, evolutionary biologists do the same in looking at the way various living systems work. My contention is that, if we want to see what drives the direction of both human history and organic evolution, we should apply this perspective more systematically. Interaction among individual genes, or cells, or animals, among interest groups, or nations, or corporations, can be viewed through the lenses of game theory. What follows is a survey of human history, and of organic history, with those lenses in place. My hope is to illuminate a kind of force—the non-zero-sum dynamic—that has crucially shaped the unfolding of life on earth so far.”

“you can capture history’s basic trajectory by reference to a core pattern: New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer form of non-zero-sum interaction; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential—that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth.”

“In short, both organic and human history involve the playing of evermore-numerous, ever-larger, and ever-more-elaborate non-zero-sum games. It is the accumulation of these games—game upon game upon game—that constitutes the growth in biological and social complexity”

“The arrow of human history begins with the biology of human nature. That arrow, a I’ve noted, points toward larger quantities of non-zero-sumness”

 “To say that reaping non-zero-sum benefits elevates social complexity borders on the redundant. The successful playing of a non-zero-sum game typically amounts to a growth of social complexity. The players must coordinate their behavior, so people who might otherwise be off in their own orbits come together and form a single solar system, a larger synchronized whole. And typically there is division of labor within the whole.

The invention of such technologies—technologies that facilitate or encourage non-zero-sum interaction—is a reliable feature of cultural evolution everywhere. New technologies create new chances for positive sums, and people maneuver to seize those sums, and social structure changes as a result.”

“When people interact with each other in mutually profitable fashion, they don’t necessarily realize exactly what they’re doing. Evolutionary psychologists have made a strong—in my view, compelling—case that this unconscious savviness is a part of human nature, rooted ultimately in the genes; that natural selection, via the evolution of “reciprocal altruism,” has built into us various impulses which, however warm and mushy they may feel, are designed for the cool, practical purpose of bringing beneficial exchange.”

“Human nature’s laser-like focus on ultimate payoff is a prime mover of cultural evolution. Instinctively enlightened self-interest is the seed that has grown into modern society. At the heart of every modern capitalist economy—as at the heart of the hunter-gatherer economies from which they evolved—is the principle of exchange.”

“The impetus behind cultural evolution, behind social complexification, lies in a paradox of human nature: we are deeply gregarious, and deeply cooperative, yet deeply competitive. We instinctively play both non-zero-sum and zero-sum games. The interplay of these two dynamics throughout history is a story that takes some time to tell. For now I’ll just say that, though they have been responsible for much suffering, the tension between them is, in the end, creative.”

“The directionality of culture, of history, is an expression of our species, of human nature.”

 “Two factors, Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, are especially conducive to the growing division of labor that characterizes economic advance. One is cheap transportation… The second factor is cheap communication.”

“Hands aren’t very cerebral, after all; guiding any invisible hand there must be an “invisible brain.” Its neurons are people. The more neurons there are in regular and easy contact, the better the brain works—the more finely it can divide economic labor, the more diverse the resulting products. And, not incidentally, the more rapidly technological innovations take shape and spread.”

“The fitful but relentless tendency of invisible social brains to hook up with each other, and eventually submerge themselves into a larger brain, is a central theme of history. The culmination of that process—the construction of a single, planetary brain—is what we are witnessing today, with all its disruptive yet ultimately integrative effects.”

“Evans-Pritchard described the dynamic abstractly: “Each segment is itself segmented and there is opposition between its parts. The members of any segment unite for war against adjacent segments of the same order and unite with these adjacent segments against larger sections.”

It sounds almost like a general law of history.”

“In the short run, this impetus for aggregation may seem aimless. Alliances shift, tensions come and go, and large social structures dissolve almost as often as they form. But in the long run, over millennia, the worldwide trend has been toward consolidation, toward higher and higher levels of political organization. And one reason is war—intense, essentially zero-sum games that generate non-zero-sum games.”

“in a context of war—the context of human history—it matter less. For in that context people have little choice but to pursue economic and organizational advance. After all, unproductive societies tend to get squashed”

 “This brings us to misconception number one: that cultural evolutionists believe change is guided by farsighted reason. Actually, cultural evolution has involved little advanced planning. ”

“The assumption that primitive culture are static is grounded in misconception number two: the idea of intrinsic equilibrium—the idea that cultures stay the same unless jostled by such outside forces as retreating glaciers or sudden drought.”

“Here, aiding and abetting the “equilibrium” fallacy, is misconception number three: that human societies are fundamentally unified, devoted to meeting their collective needs.”

 “The technology of money, for example, eventually came along and made it easier for ordinary people to enjoy non-zero-sum gain via markets, with less meddling from on high. But in the pre-monetary economy of the chiefdom, much non-zero-sumness flowed through central channels, inviting exploitation.

On balance, this book will argue, the technological evolution of the past 10,000 years has been bad news for centralized parasitism. Indeed, the liberating upshot of some new technologies—information technologies, in particular—is one of the cheerier themes in the unfolding of cultural evolution.”

 “the turbulence that characterizes world history is not only consistent with a “progressivist” view of history; it is integral to it. The turbulence itself—including the sometimes devastating empowerment of barbarians—is a result of the fact that technology evolves, with the fittest technologies spreading rapidly.

“However deeply human the tendencies of exploitation, authoritarianism, and self-aggrandizement, cultures that surrender to them may not be long for this world”

“cutting-edge technologies—economic technologies no less than military technologies—punish societies that don’t embrace them and use them well, leaving those societies at risk of being “severely shaken.” It is also metaphorically true that those technologies reward societies that employ them more profitably.”

 “The point isn’t that any one useful idea is, strictly speaking, certain to spread, or certain to be reborn if extinguished. The point is that, the more useful the idea, the more likely both spreading and rebirth are. And as the spread of useful ideas raises the world’s population, and raises intellectual synergy via improved communication and transport, these likelihoods grow all the more, until finally they do approach certainty. Increasingly, societies resemble large, thick brains,”

“As usual in cultural evolution (and for that matter in biological evolution), the most important innovations were of three kinds: energy technologies, information technologies, and materials technologies.

 “The more important thing, for this book’s purposes, is how memes in general exploited the political landscape of Europe. In this hothouse of interstate competition, technologies of energy, of materials, of information—including algorithms of capitalism and of political governance—were bound to keep sprouting and spreading….

In this light, Europe’s eventual triumph is not just consistent with a directional theory of cultural evolution; the theory virtually predicts such a triumph. After all, the speed of any evolutionary process depends heavily on two factors: how fast potentially fruitful novelties arise, and how fast manifestly fruitful novelties spread.

“Not only do all states have some competitor within their neighborhoods; the number of those competitors grows inexorably. The reason is that, as the means of transport and communication advance, the size of a “neighborhood” grows… when westerners in gunships showed up and demanded access to Asian markets: Europe and Asia were now in the same neighborhood.”

 “Religions don’t always adjust to the dictates of economic growth. In the short run, their attitudes toward technology—including, sometimes, a professed abhorrence of it—can matter greatly. But in the long run—over centuries, not decades—religions either make their peace with encroaching economic and technological reality or fade into obscurity.

 “The basic trend is this: new information technologies open up new vistas of non-zero-sumness. But typically the transmutation of non-zero-sumness into positive sums depends on granting broad access to those technologies, along with the freedom to use them well. And, over the long run, polities that fail to respect this liberating logic tend to get punished with relative poverty. Far from being new, this is to some extent the story of history.

One thing that is new is how vividly and swiftly the polities get punished. Another new thing is the extent of the decentralization of power that is now essential to prosperity.”

 “evolution” isn’t just a catchy metaphor for cultural change; at some basic level, cultural evolution and biological evolution have the same machinery. Second, they have the same fuel; the energetic interplay between zero-sum and non-zero-sum forces has been similarly pervasive in the two evolutions. Third, the two processes have parallel directions—long-run growth in non-zero-sumness, and thus in the depth and scope of complexity. Indeed, organic evolution, given long enough, was very likely to produce creatures so complex, and so intelligent, as to be capable of sponsoring cultural evolution—a cultural evolution that would then naturally extend evolution’s general drift toward deeper and vaster complexity.”

“Though both information and energy are fundamental, information is in charge. In human societies, energy (and matter, for that matter) is guided by information—not the other way around.”

“Viewed against the backdrop of all of life, then, culture was in one sense nothing new: just another data-processing system invented by natural selection to marshal energy and matter in ways that preserve DNA. But it was the first of these systems that began to take on a life of its own, inaugurating a whole new kind of evolution”

Over the past two decades, various prominent biologists—Richard Dawkins, John Tyler Bonner—have noted how arms races favor the evolution of complexity…

 “Culture is at bottom a way of learning from the learning of others without having to pay the dues they paid.”

 “So there you have it: the basic equipment needed for a species to hop on the co-evolutionary escalator: learning, learning by imitation, teaching, some use of tools, along with elementary grasping abilities, a mildly robust means of symbolic communication, and a rich social existence featuring, in particular, hierarchy and reciprocal altruism”

 “As biological evolution proceeds, and more and more species possess one or another of the several key biological prerequisites for admission to the co-evolutionary escalator, it is just a matter of time before all of these properties wind up in a single species.”

  1. “The Nature of Technology” by W. Brian Arthur
  2. “The Origin of Wealth” by Eric D. Beinhocker
  3. “Creating the Twentieth Century” by Vaclav Smil
  4. “Transforming the Twentieth Century” by Vaclav Smil
  5. “Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human” by Richard L. Currier
  6. “Learning by Doing” by James Bessen
  7. “Technology: A World History” by Daniel Headrick
  8. “The Box: How the Shipping Container…” by Marc Levinson

If you would like to learn more about how evolution has shaped human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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